AMARILLO, Texas—A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill to force teachers and other school faculty to out LGBT students to their families, even if a student asks that their sexual orientation or gender identity remain secret.
Senate Bill 242, introduced this month by Tea Party legislator Konni Burton, would penalize teachers with suspension without pay or even termination if they refuse to tell parents about students’ requests regarding issues dealing with their gender or sexual identities.
It appears Burton was inspired to introduce S.B. 242 after the school district in her native Fort Worth adopted guidelines that many see as positive for the transgender community. Students dealing with gender identity issues are to have their requests for things such as restroom or locker-room use dealt with on a case-by-case basis that would not require teachers to divulge their gender identities without considering students’ wishes. The senator wrote an op-ed in May condemning the rules.
Now, S.B. 242 wants to take out the case-by-case foundation and make disclosure mandatory, even though Burton claimed in a response on her website that the bill only adds to existing Texas laws.
Sondra Howe, a co-president of the Dallas chapter of the LGBT rights advocacy group PFLAG, expressed concerns about S.B. 242 and its possible effect on at-risk children.
“We feel it to be very harmful to students. If they have not come out at home, there is a reason for that,” Howe told The Daily Beast. PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is the nation’s largest organization representing the LGBT community’s parents, families, and friends. Founded in 1972 with “with the simple act of a mother publicly supporting her gay son,” the group has decades of experience navigating the complex relationship between LGBT youth and their loved ones.
“It may be unjustified, but even in their minds, they’re not comfortable yet with their parents,” Howe said.
The PFLAG co-president further highlighted the issue of LGBT homelessness, which can result from abusive home life. According to the True Colors Fund, which was founded to deal with the issue, 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBT, while they account for only 7 percent of the nation’s under-18 population.
PFLAG and other Texas-based organizations aren’t taking the threat of S.B. 242 lightly. Howe said they would be joining other LGBT rights groups in speaking to legislators against the bill, which won’t be voted on until next year’s legislative session, on March 20, Austin’s Advocacy Day.
“I’m trying to understand where they’re coming from for this, saying it’s the parent’s right to know what’s inside the child’s heart… I’m not sure that’s the right of the school to do something like that,” Howe said.
“I’m sorry, [Burton] is wrong,” Sandra Dunn, 58, who became the first transgender woman to run for the office of mayor in Amarillo, said of the Tea Partier's bill. “It’s a terrible idea.”
For Dunn, who still works with the LGBT community in the deeply conservative Panhandle region, the specter of S.B. 242 is horrendous. She started transitioning about six years ago, at age 52, right before her candidacy for mayor. (She came in third.)
“If I could have done it sooner, I would have,” Dunn told The Daily Beast in an interview.
When she was growing up in Texas, gender identity issues were not to be discussed with her parents or anyone else.
“Anytime I approached that subject in any form or fashion, I got the ‘boys don’t do that’ speech,” she said. “It was finger-pointing, eyes bugging out. Because of that, you learn to suppress it.”
While Texas has made strides in accepting and protecting its LGBT community—Dunn pointed to the nation’s first openly transgender judge, Phyllis Frye of Houston—there is still danger, especially from religious-fundamentalist families: “Mommy or daddy is going to say, ‘You can’t be that way.’ Then they’ll jump in and say ‘you need to do reparative therapy,’ which is now done in the name of religion.”
Reparative therapy, the attempt to change a person’s (usually a minor’s) sexual orientation, is often performed by religious organizations. The American Psychiatric Association “opposes any psychiatric treatment such as reparative or conversion therapy,” according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, as does the American Psychological Association.
There are no studies proving its efficacy. The scientific community’s general consensus is that it’s harmful pseudoscience.
Even though multiple groups expressed concern that S.B. 242 could put students at risk of being forced into reparative therapy, Burton’s chief of staff, Elliott Griffin, told the Houston Chronicle last week that such fears constitute “an unfortunate interpretation… I have no idea why they would draw that conclusion.”
Kathryn Gonzales, operations and programs director of OutYouth, an Austin-based organization that aims to provide an open and accepting environment for LGBT youth, told The Daily Beast the bill could endanger children:
“I think Senator Burton needs to rethink this because she’s going to have a lot of blood on her hands.”
Coming out to teachers and other trusted adults can be a “test-run” for LGBT students to gauge how adults would take the news, Gonzales said.
“Think of how awful it would be to come out to non-supportive parents, be kicked out of the home, and then go to school the next day being forced to come out to teachers.”
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on suicide risks for LGBT youth, the suicide rate is four times higher for this demographic and twice as high for children who are questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Eric Yarbrough, a psychiatrist at New York’s Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, one of the largest LGBT clinics in the U.S., and president of the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists, said that S.B. 242 “sounds very dangerous.”
While Yarbrough typically views communication between parents, teachers, and students as a good thing, the bill’s use of suspension and possible termination to force teachers to out their students is worrisome, he said.
“We don’t know their attitudes towards LGBT youth,” he said. “A lot of them might not have good information or attitudes towards these issues.”
Children who have questions about their sexual or gender identities are developing, and these processes are fluid, the psychiatrist explained.
“Their sexual or gender identities might not be set in stone, it seems a bit premature… the last thing we want to do is put someone in a box.”
The repercussions could be disastrous, he continued. Families might offer “not only poor emotional support, but also actual abuse,” Yarbrough said. “Both emotional and physical abuse. Family support is one of the major factors that contributes to LGBT kids developing safely.
“They can develop serious mental health issues including depression and suicidal thoughts. It can be life or death,” he said.